What’s a lie you tell yourself?

Throughout the month of January, WordPress is sending participating bloggers a writing prompt each day. It’s a way to find some creative inspiration and perhaps make connections with other bloggers. My entries in this blogging challenge will appear here under the tag #bloganuary.

My thoughts about this question immediately went to Al Franken’s character on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, Stuart Smalley, who always ended his hilarious self-help show, “Daily Affirmation” with “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” It was usually clear that Stuart had a hard time truly believing those statements about himself, but he bravely ended each show with those words. Strangely, I always related to Stuart a little bit.

A few years ago I attended a week-long writing workshop at the Collegeville Institute at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. I was there with eleven other writers for a week of writing in community, with the help of a writing coach. During our first meeting together we were all asked to introduce ourselves and tell the group a little about ourselves and our writing experience and current writing projects and such. I don’t remember everything I said, but I do remember telling my new colleagues that the “imposter syndrome” could well have been named after me. The imposter syndrome is basically a psychological malady in which a person doubts their own abilities and skills, or even their own experience and accomplishments, often fearing that they will eventually be exposed as a fake, or a fraud.

Although my application was accepted and I was invited to come to Collegeville, just like the rest of the group, even as I was traveling there I wasn’t sure that I really deserved to be there, and almost convinced myself that I was only accepted because one of the original invitees had had to cancel. When I arrived I was grateful to be there, but with a nagging sense that I probably didn’t really belong with that group of accomplished writers.

The motif of the workshop was that we would have the entire week to work on our writing projects, entirely on our own schedule, with access to the coach whenever we felt we could use some help. The only departure from this was that each evening we would gather for dinner, followed by a group activity. Most evenings it was a group discussion on some general topic of interest to writers. That first evening, after we had dinner together, we gathered in a comfortable lounge for a discussion led by our writing coach on the topic, “Why do writers so often have trouble self-identifying as writers?” As it turned out, almost every participant–even a couple of the ones who had already published one or more books–shared this same kind of self-doubt to some degree. I was surprised, and also grateful to know that I was not alone in my insecurity. It was surely that discussion that made it somewhat less intimidating for me to read some of my work to the group at the end of the week (we all got to share a little bit from what we had been writing).

This insecurity and self-doubt shows up in other areas besides my self-identity as a writer. I’ve experienced the same thing as a musician, as a pastor, even as a woodworker. I find that I tend to default to self-deprecation when it comes to questions of my own ability, skill, experience, or accomplishments, but I’m learning to recognize some of that self-talk as lies.

While I am naturally an introvert, I think that some of the insecurity I experience when I’m in full-on imposter syndrome mode is related to a fear of not being really good, or even perfect. It might be a fear of being criticized, and I really should know better than to be afraid of criticism. I learned a long time ago as a technical writer that it is important to be open to criticism and to suggestions for improvement. Not being afraid of being edited or being told that you need to try again is a path toward having more confidence going forward.

Years ago I learned this when writing sermons–I nearly always gave my almost-final draft to my wife for her comments and suggestions, and without exception, her suggestions helped me make important improvements. Sometimes it actually resulted in me scrapping an idea completely and starting over, but most of the time, her suggestions and feedback truly helped me make an okay sermon into a good one.

One thing I keep hearing (or reading about) from accomplished writers is that one wears two hats when writing–another writing coach once noted that one is the hat of the artist, a beret, perhaps, and while that hat is on your head, you just write without stopping to edit yourself. The other hat–maybe a ball cap?–is the editor’s hat, and however free I might feel when I’ve got the beret on (so to speak), I need to be equally ruthless when I’ve got the editor’s ball cap on. They are two different, but equally crucial parts of the job of writing.

I know that my vulnerability to the imposter syndrome is essentially based on lies I tell myself about my own capability, and when I remember that, it really helps me have the faith in myself to keep moving forward. When I don’t, I can still get stuck sometimes. But honestly, I think I’m doing better.

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